When Samurai Jack returned from a 10 year hiatus for Season 5, it was clear that the series had changed; much like its original audience, Samurai Jack had matured. No longer appropriate for Cartoon Network, the series moved to a late night slot on Adult Swim where it'd be free to depict more savage deaths and bright red blood.
However, the switch from family-friendly to a more mature rating wasn't simply out of a desire to sensationalize the violence, but to more deeply explore its effects on Jack. For 50 years, he has roamed this forsaken future, yet he does not age. At every pass, Aku eludes him and his continued failure makes him grow weary and lose hope. Eventually, Jack lets his anger and rage get the better of him, consuming him, and as a result he loses his sword - the one and only item which can destroy Aku.
The Jack that returned in the Samurai Jack season 5 premiere was a broken, haunted man, his spirit crushed after years of defeat and despair. Yet over the course of season 5, Jack has had his purpose restored. He has faced his demons, reckoned with past mistakes, and been reunited with his sword. Jack has even fallen in love, having grown close with Ashi - a Daughter of Aku, who after failing to kill the samurai, came to see the world from the perspective of those who Aku has hurt and oppressed.
Ashi has become Jack's fiercest ally in his quest to finally end Aku, but when faced with fighting her father, her body is no longer hers to command. Forced to battle Jack, Ashi is transformed by Aku's evil into a monster that won't rest until it has defeated the samurai. Now, Ashi is the one enemy Jack cannot bring himself to fight, and in refusing to do so, Aku can claim the sword and victory. Is this the end for Samurai Jack!?
It begins with Jack in Aku's clutches as he mocks him by broadcasting the very footage which in the past began every episode of Samurai Jack - "Long ago, in a distant land..." It's just the sort of self-referential quip the series is known for (Aku in particular), but then it backfires in the most brilliant way. The denizens of the world, forced to watch their hero brought so low, come to his aide. The sequence manages to include practically every strange character Jack came across during his travels, all of those whose lives Jack saved, bringing to mind the Mark Twain quote (most famously used in It's A Wonderful Life) - "No man is a failure who has friends." From the canine archaeologists to the ravers to the Scotsman and his bonnie lasses, they all come to save Jack from Aku in what is a great tribute not just to all these zany characters, but Jack's selfless spirit. All season long Jack has grappled with an overwhelming sense of failure, but in this moment it's clear what a success his life has actually been.
That Jack has had an enormously positive effect of the lives of those oppressed by Aku is most strongly represented through Ashi. Born from Aku's very essence, she becomes his greatest weapon against the samurai -- both an extension of his power and influence, and the one person in all the world that Jack would not fight. But just as friendship overcame failure, so does love triumph over evil. By proclaiming his love for her, Jack instills in Ashi the confidence to overcome her father's control. It's another of Jack's triumphs over Aku, smaller and more personal than the battle happening outside the castle. And when Ashi finally regains control of herself it further cements hers and Jack's strong bond.
Though vanquishing Aku is Jack's purpose, it is not something he could have ever achieved alone and Ashi especially proves herself essential. Once she regains control of her body, she also gains control of Aku's powers - most importantly, his ability to create time portals. She and Jack travel back in time to that fateful moment when Aku first launched Jack into the future, arriving only seconds after his past self departs. There Jack and Aku have their final showdown. It is a beautifully executed sequence, full of passion and pain, with a sense of utter fulfillment coming over the scene once Jack is able to finally destroy Aku. Few shows are given an ending so complete, but then, few shows are ever as committed to telling a complete journey as Samurai Jack.
However, that triumphant moment is not where Samurai Jack leaves its hero. Having killed the monster, Jack returns home to joy and celebration. He and Ashi are set to marry and a well-deserved happy ending seems all but guaranteed. And then, reality sets in. Traveling into the past and killing Aku has made it so Ashi was never born, and so she disappears from existence. To have victory followed by such a tragic twist is a punch to the gut, but one that is in keeping with Samurai Jack's storytelling. A victory never comes without sacrifices, and being able to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure that victory is the very mark of a hero.
That Samurai Jack was able to return after all these years and be such a strong continuation of its original run is incredible. Genndy Tartakovsky and his team achieved what so many series (especially animated) are never afforded - an ending that is both beautiful and satisfying, and most importantly, final. Samurai Jack was able to age and mature in a way that very few series (again, especially animated) are ever allowed to do, taking its protagonist on a hero's journey that only becomes more ugly and cruel the longer it goes on. There is pain and suffering in Samurai Jack season 5, but there is also love and friendship and hope. The finale made sure to bring all these emotions to light, even finding time for a little levity before capping off the samurai's last adventure.
The end to Samurai Jack is bittersweet to the nth degree, bringing a sad end to Jack and Ashi's love while somehow retaining a sense of hope. Jack may have lost Ashi, but he hasn't lost the love they felt for one another. He will always remember those who will now never exist. As he wistfully looks out over the land he worked tirelessly for so many, many years to save, it's clear Jack is at peace with his fate. It's a fitting and contemplative end to a life's journey, allowing Jack to think of a future of his own making for the first time in a long time.
Samurai Jack season 5 is available on Adult Swim.